EASTOVER, S.C.-- South Carolina Army National Guard Soldiers from across the state came to McCrady Training Center Feb. 2 with one goal in mind; become an Army Pathfinder. This is the first year that the course has been held in South Carolina, to specifically train and certify National Guard Soldiers.
The Pathfinders Mobile Training Team runs the 15-day course from the Warrior Training Center at Fort Benning, Georgia, and consists of three phases: sling loads, air-traffic control/helicopter landing zones, and drop zones. All three skill sets are integral to unit re-supply missions. The course challenges students through a series of written and hands-on tests ensuring graduates can execute sling load and drop zone operations with absolute precision.
"The course provides students with the skills to set up drop zones for aerial re-supply which has real-world applications for South Carolina National Guard Soldiers who may have to coordinate air-drops of food, water, and fuel during state active duty missions," said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Hardgrove, an instructor on the mobile training team.
Normally, the mobile training team instructs the Pathfinder Course over a three-week period, giving students the weekends off, a much-needed time to decompress. However, to serve the needs of the National Guard this class is taught with no days off, challenging these students to push through mental exhaustion and often study late into the night.
"Students have to memorize the nomenclatures for military equipment and use mathematical formulas for time and distance planning. This is one of the most academically challenging courses in the Army," Hardgrove said.
The final test for the students is the culminating Field Training Exercise where the students set up forward operating bases in teams and are given missions that require them to apply all the skills they have learned. They rotate into different leadership positions and perform equipment sling load, designate helicopter landing zones, and implement the verbally initiated release system where they command aircraft from the ground to release supplies in designated drop zones, among other tasks.
Pfc. Hunter Davis, of C. Co, 1-118th Infantry Battalion, the youngest student in the class, said he was really looking forward to the field training exercise.
"It's going to be fun to see everything in action," said Davis. "We've been learning for two weeks about different drop zones and to actually see the drop zones, not on paper, but in real life, will be interesting."
Second Lt. Jose Viteri, scout platoon leader from HHC, 1-118th Infantry Battalion, said that one of the most challenging parts of the Pathfinder course was the amount of memorization required in such a short period of time.
"I have never had to do that before anywhere else," said Viteri. "I was not expecting to do trigonometry in Army training. If you come to the Pathfinder course, be prepared academically and be prepared to stay up late studying and put in the work."
Maj. Gen. Robert E. Livingston Jr., the adjutant general of South Carolina, Command Sgt. Maj. Russ Vickery, the state command sergeant major, and the state training team are working hard to provide more training opportunities, like the Pathfinder Course to South Carolina for Soldiers to earn additional certifications and skill sets vital to supporting the operational force the South Carolina National Guard is today.
Vickery said that the South Carolina National Guard's response to the "1,000 year floods" in 2015 proved how valuable sling loading operations are, adding that having skilled operators available ensured that the South Carolina National Guard was able to quickly move assets and supplies to citizens who were isolated and in need.
"Any time we give our Soldiers the chance to prove what we can do, it adds validity and relevance to us as a National Guard," Vickery said, "This training enables us to provide a ready, relevant force with the skill sets needed to support state missions across a broad spectrum -because you never know who is going to be called where during a state event."
Hosting the Pathfinder course and other skill qualifying courses enhances the South Carolina National Guard's readiness and ability to respond to state and national emergencies by providing trained subject matter experts throughout the state.
It also gives leaders from different major subordinate commands in South Carolina the opportunity to train together, creating connections and relationships that are critical when working combined effort missions. Vickery emphasized that building relationships across functional areas in the South Carolina National Guard through training is another bonus to having the Pathfinder course held in the state.
"This training helps create cohesive teams throughout the state because when we deploy, whether it's for a state mission or in a fight, we do it as the South Carolina National Guard," said Vickery. "The more that we can cross-pollinize units and leadership, the more effective we will be. In maneuver combat, we all work together."
Twenty students graduated from the rigorous course on Feb. 17. At the ceremony, graduates were presented with Pathfinder wings. Brig. Gen. Brad Owens, director of the Joint Staff, South Carolina National Guard, told the graduates to remember the proud history of the Pathfinders.
"I am very proud of all of you. I am going to leave you with three things," said Owens. "One, remember your history. Two, you will be asked to do a lot; your skill set is going to be needed. And three, from those who are given much, much is expected. You will be expected to accomplish your missions and go back to your units to train others."